New initiative to tackle mental health issues at Harvard

By Michele LoBianco, MC-MPA’13, Correspondent

I grew up around mental illness.  I was taught not to talk about it and not to mention it to anyone outside of the family.  And, for most of my life, I thought this was normal.  It wasn’t until I came to HKS that I was able to open up about it.  I noticed that there were no events supporting National Mental Illness Awareness Week in October last year.  It finally struck me: This university supports so many events, but is silent when it comes to an issue that directly affects 25 percent of all Americans. Why doesn’t Harvard want to talk about it either?

So I began to advocate to anyone that would listen about mental health.  I am not a counselor or a physician.  I am like any other HKS student that feels passionately about finding solutions for a global challenge; one that silently surrounds us and one that many of us struggle with in private.  The sheer numbers are staggering. One in four people will develop a mental illness this year and most will never seek help.  When it happens, what do you say to your friend, loved one or fellow student?  Do you know how to approach the conversation?  Do you wonder if it’s your responsibility?  What if you said the wrong thing or what if you were wrong?  But worse, what if you did nothing at all? 

HKS has taught me to think broadly, to explore issues and to try to find unique or innovative solutions to policy problems. Mental Illness is not an issue that is easy to address.  A wise professor here once told me that awareness gets you nothing, but action is a sign of commitment.  Commitment leads to action, which leads to collective action. So, in the proper HKS spirit, I challenge you all to take some small steps to help one another and yourself. 

Mental Health First Aid training is one of those steps.  President Obama has just asked for $235 million dollars to be included in the budget for mental health.  A large percentage will be used to train teachers in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), to provide early intervention to improve students’ lives and prevent things like substance abuse. 

Come out on Saturday, April 20 for the First Annual Revere’s Bike Ride for mental wellness at Minute Man National Park!  We are launching a student interest group that supports mental and emotional well-being at HKS. This group will be a peer-based support group, which will collaborate in organizing speakers/events related to wellness.  MHFA training will also be conducted through this group.  If you are interested, please message us at:

https://www.facebook.com/HarvardStudentsMentalHealthInitiative  or email michele_lobianco@hks13.harvard.edu

But why stop there?  Anyone who aims for a career in public service would benefit from having this training, and all supervisors and leaders should have it.  This simple training gives ordinary people the basic tools to recognize warning signs, engage with people in trouble, and help them find the resources they need.  Through education and knowledge, we can lower the stigma that surrounds mental illness while creating a more robust social capacity to engage in real conversations without fear. 

We also need to challenge the status quo!  Mental health issues affect many other policy and public health issues, from gun control to homelessness to the market for health insurance.  Yet there is not one class on mental health policy and reform at either HKS or HSPH.  Can future practitioners and policy makers afford to be ignorant of this global health issue? 

I feel we cannot.  We must do more.  We can start by enhancing our own education with MHFA, advocating for a broader curriculum in this school and initiating the difficult conversations with ourselves and our classmates.  These actions may seem small but they begin to address the global challenge that surrounds us and that is so close within us.

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